'Unity at the expense of my equality… is not an option': Ayanna Pressley turns the screws on Democratic leadership over party divides ahead of Georgia runoffs

  • Rep. Ayanna Pressley blasted the "unprecedented vitriol" against women lawmakers and lawmakers of color, including from some within the Democratic Party, in an interview with radio show "Signal Boost" on Wednesday.
  • Pressley said some Democrats had bought into Republicans' efforts to "weaponize" her identity, and that the party needed to first examine its own behavior if it hopes to "appeal to our highest ideals."
  • She said a call for unity that sacrifices her equality as a Black woman "is not an option," tapping into the escalating debate between progressives and centrists over what — and who — the Democratic Party stands for.
  • Pressley joins AOC and other progressive lawmakers who have recently sparred with centrist Democrats following the party's surprising losses in the House and ahead of two crucial Senate races in Georgia.
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Rep. Ayanna Pressley had strong words for her Democratic colleagues on Wednesday, urging them to address sexism and racism within their ranks and not to sacrifice equality as the party calls for unity.

"Unity at the expense of my equality and my freedom and my existence and my safety is not an option, because we have sacrificed and shelved and moderated and whispered in the name of unity for a very long time," Pressley said in a candid interview with radio show "Signal Boost."

Pressley opened up about the challenges facing women and people of color in Congress and the "unique burden and blessing" of being the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in the state's 232-year history.

"The unprecedented number of women serving [in Congress] has also resulted in, not only the power of unprecedented representation… but unprecedented vitriol, and it has been unrelenting and equal parts traumatizing," Pressley said.

Republicans, from President Donald Trump to Sen. David Perdue to Rep. Ted Yoho, have at times gained notoriety for explicit displays of racism and sexism directed at those holding positions of power in Washington.

But Pressley said Democrats were far from immune from such behavior, and that while she mostly felt respected and embraced within the party, there were occasions where that wasn't the case.

"I expect the other side to weaponize my identity, to weaponize how I look, something I can't even control, but you don't expect that from within your own party," she said. "There have been moments where you feel that an idea, a narrative about you has been weaponized and that people within your own caucus believe these sound bites about who you are."

Pressley said she has repeatedly brought the issue up with party leadership and top DNC donors, telling them: "We're not going to be hypocrites and espouse to appeal to our highest ideals and send that message to the world if we're not gonna first take a look at our own party."

Read more: Expect to hear from Bernie, AOC, and these other 28 progressive power players during a Biden administration

Pressley's comments came as progressive and centrist Democrats are increasingly battling over the future of the party on the heels of a presidential victory and a wave of surprising defeats in House races — though Democrats are projected to keep their majority.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last week sparred with centrist Democrats who blamed House losses on policy and rhetoric, while she said the real reason was that those candidates barely advertised on Facebook and are internet incompetent.

Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the other two members of "the squad," all coasted to reelection while expanding their progressive coalition.

"We're building the muscle. This is the biggest congressional progressive caucus we've ever had, the first pro-choice majority Congress in history, the most diverse and representative," Pressley said Wednesday, adding that among Democrats more broadly, "There's going to be a range of ideologies and approaches there… we all share same values and the same goals, we just have different ideas about how to get there."

Democrats' fight will continue to play out against the backdrop of two competitive runoffs in Georgia that will decide which party controls the Senate.

Sen. Perdue, a Republican, leads Democrat Jon Ossoff, but since Perdue dropped below 50% of the vote, a January runoff election was triggered, in accordance with state law. On November 3, Democrat Raphael Warnock and appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler advanced to a separate Senate special-election runoff, which will also be held in January.

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